Mt.Whitney (14, 505 ft) is the highest peak in the lower 48 United States, the tallest peak of California, and sits a full 2 miles above the town of Lone Pine, CA!
Hiking Mt.Whitney is on many peoples’ hiking/backpacking bucket list but requires a long day of hiking, if doing it in one day. This 20 mile round-trip trek is not for the faint of heart – it gains just over 6,100 ft of elevation over 10 miles one way. But wait, that’s not even the hard part. Getting a permit will be your first step – only 1/3 of 17,000 applicants are rewarded a day hiking permit! Combined with backpackers hiking through the John Muir Trail (JMT), close to 20,000 people will summit Mt.Whitney in one year!
Once you get a permit, the next step will be train for this bad boy. The two main reasons people don’t make it to the summit are elevation sickness and weather. Weather, of course, you can’t train for, but getting high in altitude, working up your day hikes to 15+ miles will be required to make this a successful trip. Because this hike takes most people between 10-15 hours to complete, most hikers begin hiking by 3am to beat the heat and afternoon thunderstorms.
A little history on the area
July 1864, the members of the California Geological Survey names the peak after Josiah Whitney, the State Geologist of CA.
Fast forward to August 1873, and the first men to make it to the summit of Mt.Whitney were Charles Begole, A.H. Johnson, and John Lucas. Keep in mind that back then there was no trail – they made it to the top with the elementary tools and route finding skills before paper maps were printed
July 22, 1904 the Whitney Trail was built and completed. A string of pack mules carrying firewood was led to the summit and a large bonfire was set to signal the town of Lone Pine that the trail was complete and passable for horses and mules. Then in 1936 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a new “auto road” in 1936 called the Whitney Portal Road, with increasing demands from visitors now wanting to make the summit. For more info on the History of the Mt.Whitney Trail, click here.
Distance: 20 miles RT
Elevation gain: 6,182 ft
Time: 10-15 hours
Dog friendly? No, dogs are not allowed
Kid friendly? No.
Fees/Permits? Yes both, read below.
Can I bring my dog?
No, dogs are not allowed on Mt.Whitney.
Is this a good trail for kids?
Not for younger kids, but those who have peak-bagging experience and can carry their own weight & water should be fine. We did see two 10 year old kids (a boy and girl, separate families) on the summit! So it is possible, but only if they have experience with big peaks.
Is there a water source along the trail?
Yes, you follow Lone Pine Creek most the way up to Trail Camp, where there is also a small unnamed lake. Most people stop at Trail Camp to filter more water before hiking up the “99 Switchbacks” – about 4 miles from the Whitney summit. We filtered here AND on the way down. Total water consumption for me was 5.5 liters. Half of that was my electrolyte drink (Nuun tablets), which helped me feel better and recover more quickly during the 20 miles. You don’t need to carry all your water since you can stop and filter – this will help keep your pack lighter.
Where can I camp?
The Whitney Portal CG is best, but the Lone Pine CG is the next best and closest (the two campgrounds are about 10 minutes apart). As soon as you hear back if you won a permit, try to get a campsite at the Whitney Portal CG immediately. For our trip we had 3 nights, so the first night we got a campsite at Lone Pine CG, and the next two nights at Whitney Portal CG. This was because we wanted to sleep right at the TH the night before our 2am wake up call, and also knew we’d be too tired to move camp right after hiking 20 miles. So if you get a day hiking permit, definitely get two nights at the Whitney Portal CG.
A nice campsite at Lone Pine CG. You can’t tell, but a creek runs right next to camp by those boulders. Great for cooling off while the valley is 100F. Drinking water is available by pump inside the CG.
All CGs in the area have large bear safes to keep ALL of you gear in. Everything that is in your car needs to go in here.
One of our tents at the Whitney Portal CG. Much more shaded, and the same creek runs through the middle of camp that flows down to Lone Pine CG.
Our other tent at the Whitney Portal CG. This campground is at an elevation of 7900 ft, so temperatures are much cooler than Lone Pine CG. Drinking water is available by pump inside the CG.
Do the campgrounds have showers?
No, the closest & cheapest showers are located at the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine, CA for $7. We used the showers right after hiking Whitney and while the shower stalls are a tad small, it sure felt great! Clean with hot water. You must provide your own towel and soaps. You can take as long of a shower that you want. Check the store hours before you drive there, as they typically close at 9pm (so if you get done hiking later than expected, you’ll know not to drive all the way there).
What about hotels?
Lone Pine, CA has a few hotel options. You could also try Air B&B.
When is the best time to hike Mt.Whitney?
Typically, July and August are the best months when the trail is snow and mud-free. That also means close to 19,000 other applicants are trying for these months as well! It also depends on snow pack – it a low snow year you could easily hike this in June or even as late as September. If you can apply for a permit mid-week, you’ll also have a better chance of winning a day hike permit.
How can I find out current trail conditions?
I have a long drive to get to the Mt.Whitney TH- what are some good audio books?
My favorite out of all these is My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, but all of them are super interesting!
How hard is the trail?
This depends on your experience, fitness level, pack weight, weather, and how acclimated you are to high elevations. There are no technical areas of the route, but climbing up 6,100 ft and over lots of rock steps are required. You should have a few big day hiking trips under your belt, and be comfortable carrying up to 15-20 lbs for hours on end. As always, the lighter your pack, the easier your hike will be. More weight = harder hike.
How many hours should I plan on hiking?
Most people hike this within the 12-15 hour range, however, it depends on all the factors listed above.
What’s the altitude profile to Mt.Whitney?
Pretty consistent elevation gain.
What guidebook or map do you recommend?
I only used Gaia GPS to track my route. With Gaia you can also download maps, create routes, mark waypoints, etc. However, if you are one of those people who loves carrying paper maps, then I would get this one:
How do I apply for a permit?
Everything you need to know for how and when to apply is listed on the Inyo National Forest Mt. Whitney Lottery Permit Page. Permit applications open February 1st every year.
What are the chances I will win a permit?
LOW. Go in with the expectation that you are not likely going to win a day permit. See the 2019 results below – only 1/3 of 17,000 applicants were awarded a permit!
2019 Mt Whitney Lottery Results
16,842 applications were submitted requesting space for 84,000 people.
34% of group leaders were awarded a date of their choice. Lottery Results
Tips for Getting a Permit
– apply for a week day (tue/wed/thurs are best)
– split your group up into two parties then have each “leader” in each group apply
– apply for September when teachers and students are back in school
– the smaller your group, the more likely you will win a permit
How will I know if I won a permit?
You will receive an email that looks like this. From here, you need to “accept” and continue with the next steps. If you don’t accept within 30 days, you forfeit your permit. Sadly, I was not awarded a permit but our friend Larry did! This is not your actual permit – you will need to pick that up at the Ranger Station 1-2 days prior to your hike date.
Let’s get to the actual hike!
The night before our day hike, we found our Campsite and checked out the area so we would know where to go in the morning at 3am. We stopped in the Whitney Portal Store – they had lots of clothing items, packs, bladders, trinkets, books, maps, some small backpacking items, and a small over-the-counter restaurant. Basically you can only get burgers and fries and that’s it. They also had a few vending machines and a cooler filled with drinks and candy.
Yay, we found the official TH! Woot woot! It’s right next to the Store on the East side.
The official entrance and beginning of the Mt.Whitney trail! Feeling better about where to go, we went back to camp to make dinner and were all in bed by 8pm.
We woke up the next morning at 2am, and were hiking by 3am! Knocked out 5 miles all in the dark, had a few stream crossings, but were able to stay dry even at night. We passed several other day hikers, and knew we were hiking at a steady pace.
Around 6-6:30am, the sun started to appear. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was one of the most amazing sunrises I’ve seen. The sky was so orange and deep blue at the same time.
We were finally able to remove our headlights and day with daylight. By this point, we had already passed at least 15-20 people.
First light along the ridge.
Passing Consultation Lake to the left (South).
Arriving to Trail Camp.
If you are backpacking the Whitney Trail, then you’re likely staying at Trail Camp. This gives you an idea of what the campsites look like – tucked right in next to each other. No privacy. No shade. Right off the trail. LOTS of people. When we got up here around 7am, we saw close to 50 people just at camp getting ready for the day and filtering water.
Trail Camp at mile 6 is the most popular spot for filtering water and taking a break before hiking the “99 Switchbacks”. It’s the last water source for 8 miles – 4 up to the summit, and 4 back down to Trail Camp. This is where we stopped to get water and eat both on the way up and back down.
Most people will drink between 5-7 liters of water while hiking Mt.Whitney. DO NOT carry all of that at one time! Only hike with about 2-3 liters of water, then filter. This will make your pack so much lighter, plus who doesn’t love fresh, ice cold water to drink?! Half of my water was fresh water, the only half I drink electrolyte water using Nuun Tablets. The tablets went in my smart water bottle to not ruin my bladder that was holding my regular water. You can buy these are REI, Smith’s, other local grocery stores, or if not available in your area, Amazon.
Time to start up the “99 Switchbacks”! What a view!
Yes, there are really 99 switchbacks. Some say 100 or 101, but wither way, this section is sure to kick your butt but also has some of the best views. Take your time through this section – you will be gaining a lot of elevation over a short distance and this is where people tend to start feeling altitude sickness (13K ft).
Passing the famous cables section at mile 7.
While hiking the 99 Switchbacks, it is better to hike a much slower but steady pace, rather than hiking and stopping the entire way. Your body will be more efficient doing this. Ian and I kept our slow pace the entire way up, and passed close to another 10-12 people because they would hike. Stop. Hike. Stop. Even though you may feel really slow doing this, it’s much more efficient and your body will thank you.
The hard work uphill was paying off with rewarding views. Mt.Whitney was now in sight, on the top of the rounded peak in the distance. Sooo close!
Ian and I caught up to a few more hikers, and also a short section of snow. No extra gear (spikes, gaitors) was needed through here.
Taking in the views.
At mile 8, we reached Trail Crest. Larry was quite far behind us at this point, so we took a 15 minute break to let him catch up.
Trail Crest is the highest trail pass in the US at 13,650 ft!
Just amazing! I ate some crackers here and hydrated for the next two miles.
Just past Trail Crest the trail drops a little in elevation. A nice relief for the legs! But don’t be fooled, you still have another 1,000 ft to gain! This is looking down to Hitchcock Lakes.
The trail will intersect with the John Muir Trail (JMT). The packs left here are from the backpackers wanting to summit Whitney, but don’t want to carry all their gear so they can hike lighter and faster. I would highly advise not leaving your day packs here – the marmots in this area were huge and will get into everything. Only leave your packs if you plan to have a friend stay with them the entire time and if that friend doesn’t plan on summiting.
The trail gradually makes its way up a few more switchbacks, and this time, its much more level than the 99 Switchbacks. You’re still hiking uphill, but it’s not as hard as before.
We had one more snow patch to hike through, but again, no extra gear was needed. It was easy hiking since it was so packed down from other hikers.
Larry makes his way up the last stretch.
Finally we could see our destination!
After 8 hours and 10 miles, we reach the summit of Mt.Whitney! Woot woot! What a day!
As soon as we got to the peak, I started to cry a little. I told Ian while doing the awful cry-talking thing, “I’m just so happy I made it up without feeling like sh-t!” hahaha! It was a very proud moment for me. All my training earlier this year had paid off.
But wait….everything I see says Mt.Whitey is 14,494 ft. Why does yours say 14,505 ft?
Over the last 160 years, the elevation of Mt.Whitney has been measured many times. From the error-prone mercury barometers to today’s high tech GPS measurements, the difference in a few feet means a lot if you are the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The main reason is because tectonic plates are pushing the mountain up, and mean sea level could be affected with global warming. So the 14,494 ft was correct in the 1930s – up until the last survey of
14,505 ft just a few years ago. Mt.Whitney will continue to be surveyed in the future because of this.
On the summit of Mt.Whitney looking down to Iceberg Lake.
It’s official – I signed the summit register! August 2, 2019!
After spending about 45 minutest to an hour on the summit, it was time to head down. We were only half way done – we still had to hike 10 miles back to the car.
One of my favorite things in summer – still seeing leftover snow from Winter!
Larry kept us moving, even thought I just wanted to sit and stare at the views! Larry and I have done several big adventures together – backpacking the Grand Canyon and several locations in the Uintas, and hiking in Yosemite and Half Dome!
Larry rounds the corner with Guitar Lake below.
Since we started hiking in the dark, we didn’t get to see the first 5 miles of the hike, and we really wanted a photo with the John Muir Wilderness sign!
Hat made by Waymark Gear Co – get 10% off any item, use the code “GIRLONAHIKE” at checkout here!
After 20 miles RT, 14 hours, 6,100 ft elevation gain, 5.5 liters of water, lots of food, one crying session of happiness, lots of laughs, and about 10 pee breaks, we made it back!
This is definitely one of the most amazing hikes I’ve done. If you get the chance to go – GO!
Yes, you’ll need to do some training.
Yes, it will be a long hard day.
But no, you won’t regret it!
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can”.”
Check out my hike in a full video!
My track via Gaia GPS – the best tracking app! Get your app here for a discount.
Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills
From Lone Pine, CA head West on Whitney Portal Road for 2.7 miles, then turn right on Movie Road. Drive 1.6 miles until you reach the Mobius Arch TH, marking by a large parking area. Here’s a driving map. The hike is only 0.6 miles RT, and should only take about 15-20 minutes. The best time to hike here is in the morning hours, when the arch is lit by sunrise.